Historian TIMOTHY SNYDER on Moscow Terror 

This past Friday, 22 March, a horrifying terrorist attack took place in Crocus City Hall in the outskirts of Moscow.  Islamic State plausibly claimed responsibility.

Earlier that day, Russian authorities had designated international LGBT organizations as “terrorist.” Also earlier that day, Russia had carried out massive terror attacks on Ukrainian cities. Those actions reveal the enemies Putin has chosen. As the attack on Crocus City Hall demonstrated, his choices have nothing to do with actual threats facing Russians.

Russia and the Islamic State have long been engaged in conflict.  Russia has been bombing Syria since 2015.  Russia and the Islamic State compete for territory and resources in Africa.  Islamic State attacked the Russian embassy in Kabul.  This is the relevant context for the attack outside Moscow. The horror at Crocus City Hall obviously has nothing to do with gays or Ukrainians or any other of Putin’s enemies of choice.

Outcome of Russian terror attack in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, 22 March.

Putin had publicly dismissed the real threat.  The United States had warned Russia of a coming attack by Islamic State.  The United States operates under a “duty to warn,” which means that summaries of intelligence about coming terrorist attacks are passed on, even to states considered hostile, including (to take recent examples) Iran and Russia.  Putin chose to mock the United States in public three days before the attack. 

People reasonably ask how a terror attack could succeed in Russia, which is a police state.  Regimes like Russia’s devote their energy to defining and combating fake threats.  When a real threat emerges, the fake threats must be emphasized.  Predictably (and as predicted), Putin sought to blame Ukraine for Crocus City Hall.

Outcome of Russian terror attack in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, 22 March

What if Russians realize that Putin’s designations of threats are self-serving and dangerous?  What if they understand that there are real threats to Russians ignored by Putin?  He has devoted the security apparatus to the project to destroying the Ukrainian nation and state.  What if Putin’s obsession with Ukraine has only made life worse for Russians, including by opening he way to actors who are in fact threats to Russian life, such as Islamic State? 

These are the questions Putin must head off. It is not easy, however, to blame Ukraine for Islamic State terrorism.  Putin’s first media appearance, nearly a day after the attack, was far from convincing.  The specifics he offered were nonsensical.  He claimed that the suspects in the terrorist act were heading for an open “window” on the Russian-Ukrainian border.

The term “window” is KGB jargon for a spot where the border has been cleared for a covert crossing.  That the leader of the Russian Federation uses this term in a public address is a reminder of his own career inside the KGB.  Yet Putin had obviously not thought this claim through, since a “window” must involve a clear space on both sides of the border.  For escaping terrorists, it would be the Russian side that opened the window.  By speaking of a “window” Putin indicated that the terrorists had Russian confederates preparing their exit, which he presumably did not mean.  It seems that Putin was hastily making things up.

Setting aside the “window” business, though, the whole idea that escaping terrorists would head for Ukraine is daft.  Russia has 20,000 kilometers of border.  The Russian-Ukrainian part of it is covered with Russian soldiers and security forces. On the Ukrainian side it is heavily mined.  It is a site of active combat.  It is the last place an escaping terrorist would choose. 

Outcome of Russian terror attack in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, 22 March

And there is no evidence that this is what happened.  Russia claims that it has apprehended suspects in Bryansk, and claimed that this means that they were headed for Ukraine.  (Western media have unfortunately repeated this part of the claim.)  Regardless of whether anything about these claims is true, Bryansk would suggest flight in the direction of Belarus.  Indeed, the first version of the story involved Belarus, before someone had a “better” idea.

In moments of stress, Russian propaganda tries out various ways to spin the story in the direction preferred by the Kremlin.  The reputed suspects are being tortured, presumably with the goal of “finding” some connection to Ukraine.  The Kremlin has instructed Russian media to emphasize any possible Ukrainian elements in the story.  Russian television propaganda published a fake video implicating a Ukrainian official.  The idea is to release a junk into the media, including the international media, and to see if anything works. 

Amidst the flotsam and jetsam are those who spread Russian propaganda abroad, who try out versions more extreme than Putin’s.  Putin does not directly deny that Islamic State was the perpetrator — he simply wants to direct attention towards Ukraine.  But actors outside Russia can simply claim that Ukraine was at fault.  Such actors push the discussion further than the Kremlin, and thereby allow Russia to test what might work abroad.

Outcome of Russian terror attack in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, 22 March. In the center you see a woman grieving the death of her son and granddaughter. Fragments of their bodies were recovered and identified by DNA testing. (Photo by Karina Galunova/Suspilne via Getty Images)

As a result, we have a bizarre discussion that leads to a harmful place.  Islamic State claims responsibility for Crocus City Hall.  The Islamic State publishes dreadful video footage.  Russia cannot directly deny this but seeks help anyway in somehow pushing Ukraine into the picture.  Those providing that help open a “debate” by denying that Islamic State was involved and making far more direct claims about Ukraine than the Kremlin does.  (This brazen lying leads others to share of Islamic State perpetration video (don’t share it; don’t watch it).  So the senseless “debate” helps Islamic State, since the reason it publishes perpetration videos is to recruit future killers.)

Meanwhile, Russia’s senseless war of aggression against Ukraine continues.  In its occupied zones, Russia continues to kidnap Ukrainian children for assimilation and continues to torture Ukrainians and place them in concentration camps.  It continues to send glide bombs, drones, cruise missiles and rockets at Ukrainian towns and cities. 

On the same day as the attack at Crocus City Hall, Russia carried out its single largest attack to date on the Ukrainian energy grid, leaving more than a million people without power.  Among other things it fired eight cruise missiles at the largest Ukrainian dam. Russia attacked the city of Zaporizhzhia (the consequences are in the four photos) and other cities throughout Ukraine.

On Friday Russia fired, in all, eighty-eight missiles and sixty-three explosive drones into Ukraine. And that represents just a single day (if an unusually bad one) of a Russian war of terror in Ukraine that has gone on for more than two years.

Putin is responsible for his mistakes inside Russia. And he is at fault for the war in Ukraine.  He is trying to turn two wrongs into a right: into his own right to define reality however he likes, which means his right to kill whomever he chooses. 

TS 24 March 2024

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